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October 22, 2015

Heart of Midnight


Matthew Chapman - 1988
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I was intrigued by opportunity to see Heart of Midnight primarily because of the memories I have of Matthew Chapman's best known film as writer-director, Strangers Kiss. That film was inspired by the making of Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss. Chapman has had an interest in the people who exist in the margins of show business, whether it is Peter Coyote as a fledgling filmmaker in Strangers Kiss, or Helen Mirren as a hostess in a London "gentleman's club" in Hussy. Most of Heart of Midnight takes place in an old nightclub inherited by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The name of the nightclub is Midnight. The heart might well be the rooms upstairs, a couple of conventional spaces for living, and several that are decorated for use for people with specialized tastes. Among the spaces is what appears to be a child's bedroom, with a permanently placed Christmas tree, and a teddy bear that is always face down. When Carol, the young woman who has inherited the club from her Uncle Fletcher, first enters the upper floor of the nightclub, we notice that the hallway is painted red, and round lamps decorating the hallway resemble breasts.

Carol may, or may not, be hallucinating or hearing sounds, and the nightclub may, or may not, have a life of its own. Either way, Heart of Midnight owes a bit to The House of Usher and Repulsion. This is apparent in an early scene when Carol undresses by an open window, spotted by three young men (including a young Steve Buscemi) sitting across the street. The doors of the night club open, suggesting an invitation. That two of the men might have an unacknowledged homoerotic attraction to each other is suggested when the two make a few sinewy dance moves, before an abrupt cut shows the two simultaneously attempting to rape Carol. When Carol attempts to escape from the men, and the men try to escape when a desperate Carol pulls a fire alarm, the doors are discovered to be locked. The situation is not dissimilar to that of a haunted house where the guests enter easily, and then finds themselves trapped.

Especially in the earlier scenes, with her hair blonde, and with the deep red lipstick, Leigh looks closer to a movie star from an earlier era. A scene with her smoking and singing definitely belongs to an earlier time when a musical number in a smoky joint was not out of place in a primarily dramatic film. Leigh appears with a knee length cast on one of her legs until the final scene. Matthew Chapman, in the commentary track, explains that Leigh already had the cast when she took the role. There's no back story provided, and there is no sense that Leigh's physical performance would have been significantly different had there been no cast.

Chapman, joined by co-star Peter Coyote, discuss the making of Heart of Midnight, but mostly leave any interpretation of the film to the audience. There's a red apple that mysteriously appears in a refrigerator, a painting of apples, and dozens found gathered on a floor. Not coincidentally, a clip from Hitchcock's The 39 Steps appears on television, with Madeleine Carroll undoing her stockings, setting up a scene involving bondage and fetish wear. And where a film might conventionally fade to black, Chapman fades to red. Not everything works here. I have to respect Matthew Chapman for making a film that makes no attempt to appeal to popular tastes. And Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is worthy of greater attention than has been given to this otherwise little seen film.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 22, 2015 07:23 AM